The Wrong Side of History?
The Tauranga Heritage Collection is a massive, fascinating array of artefacts that would be on display in our museum, if we had one.
In a warehouse in Mount Maunganui, 30,000 objects of local and national significance are carefully packed away — some date back 700 years. They are the history of our area and they tell our story, so is it ok that they are hidden away from sight?
The meaning of objects is such a personal thing. Have you ever cleared out a cupboard to come across a collection of old photos, a toy from your childhood or diaries from your teenage years
and taken a little trip down memory lane? The items hold too much wistfulness to part with them,
they are an important part of who you are. Nostalgia sits heavily around objects — they make
you remember the times, places and people that made up that part of your history.
Tucked away inside Mount Maunganui’s industrial landscape, more than 30,000 objects are
packed away between layers of cotton and tissue paper in a temperature-controlled warehouse. They make up the Tauranga Heritage Collection and they tell our stories.
The collection started its life in 1969 as part of the Tauranga District Museum on the corner of Hamilton and Durham Streets, thanks to the work of the local Historical Society. After out-growing this original site, a living-museum (buildings set up to function as they would have in the past)
was run at the Historic Village until 1998. Since then, the objects in the collection have been in
the stewardship of Tauranga City Council.
I'm surprised how orderly it is. Maybe the romantic part of me was hoping for layers of dust and boxes of treasures yet to be discovered.
Cultural Heritage Co-ordinator Fiona Kean works with Cultural Heritage Manager Dean Flavell and some dedicated volunteers preserving the collection she describes as “rich in objects of both local and national significance, representing a substantial amount of support from the community.”
Fiona’s passion for the collection and its stories bubbles over as she takes me for a sneak peek at some of the objects of interest. We move into a large open warehouse and I’m surprised at how
clean and orderly everything is. Maybe the romantic part of me was hoping for layers of dust and boxes of treasures yet to be discovered, like a trip to an op-shop on steroids. The treasures are there, but they are neatly packed away and catalogued. And that’s exactly the point, preserving objects
of the past to inform the future.
“A small but extremely dedicated team of volunteers have been incredibly important to the collection over the years,” says Fiona. “It would not be overstating it to say the collection exists in large part
due to their generosity.” The volunteers undertake a wide variety of tasks, from digitalisation and translation to even sewing replica WW1 nursing uniforms and Turkish Kabalaks (military sun helmets).
This generosity extends to individuals and businesses who donated the objects sitting in their cupboards as they felt they had important stories to tell about Tauranga. “Over the 50 years, donations have largely come from the residents of Tauranga and the wider region. There have
been so many significant and interesting donations,” says Fiona. These range from a bugle played
by 13-year-old George Lemon in the 1864 battle of Pukehinahina (Gate Pā), to the anchor of the Rena.
“The recent acquisition of objects connected to the Rena disaster, including the anchor and compass, will really support the telling of that highly significant event,” says Fiona.
One of the first large-scale acquisitions to the collection was the contents of an entire workshop belonging to local Charlie Haua, Tauranga’s last blacksmith. Born in 1903, Charlie was a well-known and loved local who served as a blacksmith for 49 years. He forged horseshoes in his business on Grey Street, and for visitors to the Historic Village during his retirement. Charlie’s horseshoes were commonly purchased as wedding gifts, symbolising good luck for new couples. (Modern horseshoes are largely made by machines, moving blacksmiths into the realm of artisans.) Charlie passed
away in 1984, aged 80. All items from the workshop, from his leather apron to the anvil, tongs and hammer tools are stored in the collection.
“The collection is tangible evidence that Tauranga has a very long and rich history, says Fiona.
“When groups visit the storage facility, it is really special to see this realisation dawn on people
when they see the 700-year-old wooden waka bailer or when they handle (with gloves!) the medals
of a local WW1 soldier killed at the Battle of the Somme.”
So how can the public access the collection? A small selection is available to school-aged children through Hands on Tauranga, a service that allows teachers to request items, giving students tactile and visual experiences to enhance their learning about our region’s history. In the short-term,
Fiona says they “hope to significantly improve online access to the collection.” Long term, finding
a more public home for the collection has been a topic of dispute in Tauranga…
Enter the museum debate. The role of a museum in a community can serve various roles as both
a community and civic space, as well as preserving and researching collections. One of the main benefits is making collections accessible to the public.
Puawai Cairns, Tauranga local and head of Mātauranga Māori Collection at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, has spent her career curating stories about the meaning held in objects. “Objects are a living memory bank for a place. Curators and museums help to unlock stories in a
way that respects the integrity of the voices behind them, providing a space with intention to restore relationships,” she says.
“Tauranga is my heart,” says Puawai, “I have no choice in that. I think a museum is a good proposal
if Tauranga wants to celebrate its heritage that way.
Our own city centre has an important story. It resides on the Te Papa peninsula. In 1838, the Anglican mission known as the Church Missionary Society (CMS) committed to use the land for the benefit
of local Māori and put the land in a Trust to preserve it from sale to settlers. Under pressure from
the Crown, CMS gifted most of the peninsula to the government to enable the founding of Tauranga township. This betrayal of trust to local hapū has created a deep and lasting hurt.
“The upcoming apology by the Anglican Church to Ngāti Tapu and Ngai Tamarāwaho for their part
in the betrayal of trust will hopefully begin a process of healing the city’s heart,” says Dr Alistair Reese, who has been working on the apology by reviewing historical transcripts and understanding the series of events that lead to the gifting of the land. “I believe that historical amnesia prevents us from understanding many of our social predicaments. In contrast, embracing our past is a key to unlocking our pathway to a healthier future,” he says. Letters from the collection have assisted this work.
Some of Fiona’s best-loved objects in the collection are also made on paper. “The Tauranga Heritage Collection has over 350 original movie posters dating from the 1930s to the 1970s. Some of the movies represented include Tarzan and the Slave Girl 1950, The Sound of Music 1965, Planet of the Apes 1968 and The Rocky Horror Picture Show 1975.” These items were gifted to the collection from the Capitol Cinema in Te Puke.
Another favourite is the 1911 New Zealand Police Gazette, giving a fascinating glimpse into the not
so good, good old days. “The monthly publication, distributed to the 788-strong police force throughout the country, was a vital tool in the fight against crime. For Tauranga, the stories included a fireman convicted to two months prison for obscene language, and a cook and a labourer who both spent a month in prison for idle and disorderly behaviour. “Interestingly, in all cases the individuals are recorded as natives of Australia,” recalls Fiona.
Fiona says the importance of the Tauranga Heritage Collection will only grow. “Essentially, the collection makes sure that objects that support the telling of our important stories are there for
future generations. It means that we remember where we came from and it can help guide
where we are going.”
For me, that next generation is my three-year-old daughter. Thinking to the future sees me walking hand-in-hand with her to a museum, where she can learn about how Tauranga was formed,
about the people who have shaped it and how she can be a part of a positive future for the city.
I hope she will be able to visit the collections and have her interest piqued, as mine was with the
small glimpse I had.
Find Out More About Tauranga’s History
Brian Watkins House
Tauranga Historical Society
Your history, our history
Hands on Tauranga
Story published in issue 11 of Our Place magazine.
Story by Kimberley Cleland
Photography by Alice Veysey